Bird Lady Blog

August 17, 2017

Going, Going, Gone


Black-Headed Grosbeak

‘Tis the time in northern Arizona when many people start asking: “So when are you closing up and heading back to (fill in the blank)?”  After all, pine needles are dropping like crazy, occasionally the lovely smell of a wood-burning fireplace permeates the air, fall decorations adorn our doors and tabletops, and we hear about plans for Halloween costumes and parties. It’s that transition time from summer to fall, and the days are usually gorgeous, with the monsoon rains long gone and the spring’s strong and gusty winds hardly thought of anymore.

But where are the Black-Headed Grosbeaks and Anna’s Hummingbirds? They have already headed south to Mexico and South America.  The Western Bluebirds, though, are still showing up all over the Pinewood Country Club golf course, pulling out grubs and worms that are just underneath the trail of the electric carts and golfers’ steps.  The Yellow-Headed Blackbirds are gone as well, but the Swallows – Barn, Tree, Violet-Green, Rough-Winged – are still around as long as there are plenty of the insects to catch on the fly.

Why do some birds move on and others don’t? Well with people, we’d say “follow the money”, but with birds, it’s all about “follow the food source”.  The insects that are sources of food to American Robins, Black-Headed Grosbeaks, Western Bluebirds, and Red-Winged Blackbirds do not exist in our cold northern Arizona winters, so these birds migrate to follow food sources and survive.  Other bird species, such as our American Crows, Steller’s Jays, Western Chickadees, and Pygmy and White-Breasted Nuthatches, stay in Munds Park because their food sources extend into the winter.

I recently had a reader approach me and ask if it was normal to see a Steller’s Jay taking peanuts and burying them into the ground. “What was going on, weren’t the birds hungry?”  Actually, this is normal behavior for a lot of birds.  They were taking the food and caching it for a rainy day, or in bird-speak, for later consumption on a cold and wintry day.  Many bird species take nuts and seeds and store them in crevices in trees or in the ground for future use.  Acorn Woodpeckers are notorious for this behavior; sometimes there are thousands of acorns in a “grainary” tree, and the woodpeckers even move seeds and nuts from larger holes to smaller holes as the seeds or nuts shrink.  It’s all about survival and being prepared for the worst.

The birds that stay year round in Munds Park are the ones that have dependable food sources. Those that migrate need more of an insect diet.  Right now is an exciting time for birders in Arizona – everyone is on the watch for the migrants coming through their neighborhoods.  For example, the Bird List Serve run by the University of Arizona mentions a migrating Blackpoll Warbler in Chandler, White-Crowned Sparrows showing up, (I always hear them in Scottsdale about the first week of October), and a Blue-Throated Hummingbird in Green Valley.

Probably only one more article to go this season; we are headed to Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah soon. I haven’t yet researched what special birds we might see on that trip, but I will for sure let you know what I find when I write the last article of 2016.  I’m hoping for a Clark’s Nutcracker.  In the meantime, please let me know what you see or hear in Munds Park (birds only, please!) while I’m gone!

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Our Busy Nuthatches


Pygmy Nuthatch

One of my most favorite bird species in Munds Park is the Pygmy Nuthatch. I think I like them so much because they are so unafraid, and bold, and gregarious.  And they come in groups – never one at a time.  You hear them and then you see them, coming within a few feet of you to your sunflower seed feeder or birdbath.

Pygmy Nuthatches are considered small song birds, but what they sound like is a series of chirps, mostly on a single pitch – not melodious at all, but certainly getting your attention when a group of them arrives. They mostly flit from branch to branch looking for insects such as caterpillars, moths, and spiders, and for conifer seeds.  They readily will take sunflower seeds and chopped nuts from your feeders.

Pygmy Nuthatches are very communal, roosting together in the cavities of trees in cold weather and also providing nesting help to others of their species. We have Pygmy Nuthatches at our feeders daily, but I always wonder where their nests are and how they are raising their young.  The nest is most likely tucked away somewhere in a tree cavity or crevice 15 feet up and out of our sight.

The other nuthatch species we have here regularly is the White-Breasted Nuthatch. It is much larger than the Pygmy, relatively speaking, is solitary unless it has young around, and spends more time climbing up and down trees than the Pygmies.

The third species that comes through Munds Park is the Red-Breasted Nuthatch. I have seen it only during a couple of seasons, towards the beginning of fall, and it was mingling in with the Pygmy Nuthatches.  It has a distinct black eye stripe, and of course a red breast.  If any of you readers spot one, I sure would like to know.

Nuthatch predators include squirrels, owls, and woodpeckers. And according to Wikipedia, there are over 20 nuthatch species across the world, including in India, China, Thailand, Burma, Turkey, Russia, the Bahamas, Mexico, England, and Wales.

Finally, two sightings are worthwhile noting these past two weeks: a Zone-Tailed Hawk soaring above the front nine of Pinewood Country Club, and a single White-Faced Ibis at the pond off of Hole #10.  You gotta’ love golfing when you can catch an unusual bird or two at the same time!

 

May 26, 2015

Nesting and Babies


Steller's Jay feeding on Junco chick courtesy of Gordon Karre

Steller’s Jay feeding on Junco chick courtesy of Gordon Karre

I’ve already received reports from Munds Park residents that birds are in high-reproductive mode.  Dan sent me photos of a pair of Steller’s Jays that nested on the light above his garage door.  As I write this article (shortly after snow in May and really cold temperatures), the mother bird is in the nest keeping the chicks warm while the male keeps bringing food to them.  I also heard from Les who had a Dark-Eyed Junco, actually the Gray-Headed Junco sub-species that we have here in Munds Park, trying to build a nest in his wife’s Mandevilla plants in pots on the deck.  The human activity around the first pot seemed a bit more than the bird could handle, so she moved to a planter farther away on the deck.  We’ll have to see if she actually lays eggs and they hatch.

This time of year is very stressful for birds.  Selecting a mate and a suitable nest site, finding the nesting material and hauling it over to the site, laying the eggs, sitting on them and still getting enough food to sustain a healthy female – it all takes a toll on the parents.  On top of that, there are predators who would love to snack on the eggs plus the chicks themselves.  These predators include other birds plus raccoons, skunks, and snakes.  I recently experienced this last threat in Scottsdale.  A Gamble’s Quail built a nest and laid 14 eggs in a pot with an asparagus fern at our front door.  We stopped using the front door and I posted a sign for anyone approaching the house – “Caution, Quails Nest!  Please do Not Disturb”.  One Sunday morning I peeked out the shutters and feathers were everywhere, as were egg shells and some left-over yolks.  It must have been a coyote that came right up to our front door in the middle of the night and made a dinner of our resident quail and her eggs.

So what can you do?  First and foremost, do not let your cats out of the house.  Keep them indoors – at all times.  It is estimated that there are 77 million cats in the USA, and only 35% of them are kept indoors.  Those that go outside kill adult birds, baby birds, and other wildlife.  Not because they are hungry – because owners spend billions of dollars on cat food – but because they can and they do.  It’s their nature.  So do us all a favor – keep your cats indoors.  And tell   your neighbors to keep their cats indoors.  (I suppose “explain nicely” is a better way to put it.)

Secondly, if you do have nest boxes (for Western Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Mountain Chickadees, Brown Creepers, and White-Breasted Nuthatches) – make sure they conform to good nest box design and practices.  You can go online and start with birding hobby companies and order boxes with the right dimensions.  Or you can get designs that are easy to build, like the ones I use to make nest boxes with pine and a few battery-operated hand tools.  You should clean out nest boxes after every season.  Make sure they are secured and won’t crash down with our Munds Park winds in May and June.  Last fall we put up seven new Western Bluebird nest boxes on trees around the Pinewood Country Club – can’t wait to see if they will be occupied this year.  We also cleaned out the others – so all in all there are some good opportunities to provide safe nesting sites for our Western Bluebirds and Tree Swallows.

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